Understanding Autism in Rural Communities

Siyakwazi works with children with a variety of disabilities. Including sensory, physical and cognitive. The cognitive conditions are sometimes the most difficult to identify in a child as they are not obvious. For many children, cognitive disabilities may result in some learning barrier which can limit their integration into mainstream school.

As part of the Park’ Family Outreach earlier this year, Catherine Park, a UK-based Special Education Needs (SEN) teacher, shared with the Siyasizas some insight on the neurological condition – Autism. Autism is a condition which is often prevalent in the rural communities, but which lacks understanding and can be severely discriminated against.

Autism is a neurological disorder which means it is to do with the brain. Our brains are designed to help us filter out information that is not useful in a particular scenario. A person with Autism is not always able to control how the brain filters this information. There can be too much information coming at once which can result in feelings of frustration, feeling overwhelmed, irritation, or scared that everything is happening at once.  A child who experiences this bombardment of information and the associated anxiety might want to run away, shut down or recluse themselves from the world. 

Diagnosing Autism in children is not always a straightforward process, and can further be aggravated by the lack of medical personnel and information about the condition which is often seen in rural environments. In some cases, a child with Autism may go undiagnosed and simply be labelled as ‘difficult’ or badly behaved. Because of the spectrum of Autism, cases may vary from very severe to mild, the latter allowing for a child to continue in a mainstream school environment with little to no intervention.  Autism is not curable, it’s not a disease, one can only assist and help a child with Autism manage/cope with the world that they are in.

Introducing new objects can assist in managing the behavioural traits of a child with Autism

Some of the symptoms which Siyakwazi’s Siyasizas have encountered with children, who have been identified as experiencing barriers to learning, are restlessness, not following instructions, self-harm (when the child is angry, frustrated or over stimulated), eating foreign objects, harming others such as smacking or biting, and poor control of emotions, to name a few. Often, teachers and parents are unaware of the child’s condition and continue to manage and discipline the child, having the same expectations of a child who is developing at an age appropriate rate.  Not understanding and managing the behaviours of children with developmental barriers can be problematic as these behaviour traits are often in response to frustration, fear or anger and not being able to translate the response to stimuli in a rational manner.

So how does one manage a child who displays autistic traits, but where things like diagnosis and access to special education needs resources are limited?

Identification

The earlier the better! It is uncommon for a child with Autism to be identified before the age of 2. The behaviours mentioned earlier can easily be associated with that of any toddler. However, as soon as the child is exposed to any environment where there are multiple stimuli, identification of any challenges is crucial. At Siyakwazi our teams are all about early identification and we are continually work alongside parents, teachers and caregivers to assist with this process.

Even when a child has been identified as showing certain traits or behaviours of an autistic child, the process of diagnosis is not always simple. Sometimes parents don’t want to hear that their child is experiencing challenges or is ‘different’ and could be resistant to the idea of having their child assessed by a medical practitioner.

Managing Behaviours

Children with Autism develop behavioural traits (self-stimulation) which help them cope with the overload of stimulation to the brain. Rocking backwards and forwards, a child hitting themselves repeatedly or chewing on objects can all be mechanisms for soothing themselves when their brain simply cannot process everything around them. Sometimes these behaviours can cause themselves or others harm or create social or learning barriers.

Creating a positive replacement behavioural trait can be useful to help replace negative traits. Such as giving the child something that they can bite or suck on that might prevent them from putting a random foreign object in their mouth. It’s also about finding stimulation that will promote learning, if rocking soothes a child with Autism then perhaps a rocking chair or ball that they can roll on will help them get into a responsive frame of mind.

Creating an Individual Support Plan (ISP)

An ISP is just one of the interventions Siyakwazi uses when working with children with special education needs.  Once a child has been identified and assessed in terms of learning and social barriers the team is able to start mapping out a process for how to better promote learning. One of the children who is based in an ECD centre is currently being taught certain hand signs as his speech, and hence communication, is underdeveloped. This lack of communication exacerbates the barriers he faces in his learning environment. A simple instruction like ‘wait’ is given with a hand sign. Another child who falls under the non-centre based (NCB) programme is being taught in a similar manner with a hand sign for ‘more’. In both instances, the hand sign is taught and when repeated by the child or the instruction followed, they are rewarded with something which has been identified as a positive stimulator. Over time, day to day activities which may have in the past been difficult or near impossible to complete could become a straightforward process of signs and rewards for communication.

The ISP serves as a tool for making sure that everyone understands what is expected and how to interact with the child. It also helps with measuring progress over time so that Siyakwazi gets an idea of what is working or not working for that particular child. Using the ISP also helps to focus on goals in small attainable steps for each child.

As Siyakwazi continues to work with SEN children so our understanding and exposure to different conditions grows. We always remain mindful of the most important lesson, which is that all children are different and so solutions and ideas need to be as vast and different too.

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